Published March 22, 2019
For Kathy Twist, the moment came in 2013, when she traveled with the women’s basketball team to Cleveland for the team’s first Mid-American Conference tournament appearance under head coach Felisha Legette-Jack.
“She said, ‘We’re going to win this someday, Kathy, and it’s going to be soon,” recalls Twist, UB Athletics’ senior associate AD for sports administration. “The way she said it, with such conviction, it was like she just knew.”
And that’s when Twist knew UB’s athletics program was about to embark upon something big, something that had been building for years. It’s finally popped. UB athletics is no longer an afterthought. It’s part of the national conversation. Right now, the eyes of the sports world are fixed on March Madness. Last year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament averaged 8.6 million viewers.
CBS Sports’ college basketball analysts are predicting UB’s men’s team will advance to the Final Four. ESPN’s women’s hoops insiders are gushing over another potential magical run by the women’s team, which enjoyed a historic trip to the Sweet Sixteen last season.
Think about that for a minute. Neither program was on the national radar five or six years ago. Now? Well, they’re the talk of the college basketball world. Just since March 10, when the MAC Tournament began, Bulls basketball has been mentioned in media more than 2,000 times, with a potential reach of 2 billion people.
And that figure skyrocketed once former UB men’s coach Bobby Hurley and his Arizona State Sun Devils defeated St. John’s in Wednesday’s play-in game, setting up a matchup between Hurley and the coach — UB’s Nate Oats — whom he made his top assistant in Buffalo.
“It’s definitely exciting times,” UB Director of Athletics Mark Alnutt said after Sunday’s men’s basketball selection show watch party at Santora’s Pizza Pub and Grill.
While football and men’s and women’s basketball command most of the national attention, many of the Bulls other programs have enjoyed a high level of success.
Six UB wrestlers are competing this weekend in the NCAA Tournament, and head coach John Stutzman was a finalist for 2019 NWCA Division I National Coach of the Year. Men’s and women’s tennis have become MAC powerhouses that regularly advance to their respective NCAA tourneys. Sean Burke coached women’s soccer to the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament in 2014.
Alnutt joined UB from the University of Memphis just under a year ago, but he’s well versed in the foundation his predecessors built for the department.
“When you look at the progression of this athletics department, it goes back to athletics directors such as Warde Manuel and the vision that he had. Danny White’s vision and hiring the coaches that he hired. Allen Greene carrying that torch,” says Alnutt, who’s in Tulsa with the men’s basketball team.
“It’s been a tremendous experience to see the vision of all three athletic directors come to fruition in the form of winning MAC championships on a consistent basis,” adds Legette-Jack. “It’s not just about basketball. It’s about football, volleyball, soccer — it’s all been transformed into everyone fighting to be No. 1, not just part of the MAC anymore. We want to take over this thing.”
Success takes time to build, especially in Division I athletics. UB, which joined in 1998, is still the youngest team in the MAC, considered among the top of the Group of Five conferences. “We’ve been growing ever since. We had to start recruiting student-athletes who could compete in the MAC, and that took some time,” says Twist, who coached women’s tennis at UB for 16 seasons before taking on her current administrative role in 2012. “Now you see the caliber of student-athlete we get here. The level of athleticism has risen.”
Quality facilities make a difference, too. Later this spring, UB will officially open the Murchie Family Fieldhouse, a brand-new, 92,000-square-foot space that will be used by just about all of UB’s 16 teams.
The Bulls’ brand is as strong as it’s ever been, and Bulls pride is everywhere. “You can see it on the streets of Western New York, and on campus,” says Alnutt. “Everyone is proud to wear the UB Blue. You can even get our merchandise in Wegmans now.”
It was also visible in the stands at Alumni Arena, where the Bulls saw an approximately 50 percent increase in season ticket sales this past regular season and an approximately 30 percent jump in attendance as UB eclipsed the 100,000 fan attendance mark. In addition, going into March Madness, the Bulls played 15 games on national television, compared to fewer than 10 last year.
“The women drawing 2,000 to 3,000 and the men standing room only speaks to the impact,” says Jim Atwood, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Chemistry, who also serves as faculty athletics representative. Atwood is a longtime basketball season ticket holder who has enjoyed watching both programs’ recent rise.
“For the women, the moment was in the 2015 MAC Tournament when Stephanie Reid made the last-second shot to win the championship as an eighth seed. For the men, it was Nate Oats’ first year where he had lost much of the team from the MAC champions the previous year, but still managed to win the MAC Championship,” Atwood says when asked when he felt things were changing in UB athletics.
Words can hardly explain how exciting it’s been for Twist to see all the hard work finally paying off. “I’ve seen how much work has gone into building this, and to see it grow into something unbelievable — I’m ecstatic,” she says.
Perhaps what’s more unbelievable is this: For the athletics department, advancing to the Big Dance four out of the past five years for the men and two out of the past three seasons for the women is great — but that’s not good enough.
It’s that fire, that drive for greatness that motivates everyone in the department.
“This is a place that’s not trying to win championships. We’re trying to create a dynasty,” Legette-Jack says.
Maybe that’s why Twist is seeing a difference in the reaction she receives when she attends conferences across the country. People used to chuckle whenever she said she worked at the University at Buffalo.
“People aren’t laughing anymore,” she says.
That’s because Buffalo has built something impressive, and now the entire country is taking notice.